Why Biden’s Police Reform Promises May Not Lead to Change

A State of the Union address is often a highlight reel of a president’s accomplishments — but it’s also a policy wish list. It makes sense, then, that President Biden called on Congress to “get the job done.” Police reform in this year’s speech — which came just a week after video footage of Tyre Nichols’ fatal traffic stop was released to the public. “Think about whether your son or daughter is walking down the street or playing in the park or just driving their car home,” Biden said during his remarks. “All of us in this chamber, we have to rise to this moment. We cannot turn away. Let us do what we know in our hearts we must do.”

Biden isn’t the only one talking about police reform. Nichols’ death, which came days after he was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers and the accused officers were charged with murder, has renewed calls to pass a federal bill named after George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officers in 2020. But its chances of becoming law still look dim. The bill — which would create a national police misconduct registry, ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, end qualified immunity and ban racial and religious profiling by law enforcement, among other things — passed the House twice — once in spring 2020. And then again in spring 2021 — but each time adjourned in the Senate. In 2021, neither side has overcome disagreements over union involvement or qualified immunity, which often protects police officers from being held personally liable for their actions.

Of course, those sticking points are still in play. But there are other obstacles. And a police reform bill that first passed a Democrat-controlled House two years ago faces arguably more obstacles now. Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing Democrats is the lower chamber now controlled by Republicans. Also, some GOP lawmakers have already expressed skepticism that federal police reform measures would have prevented Nichols’ death.

Another problem, though, is that many Americans — but Republicans, especially — think there’s no systemic problem with police violence. In fact, several recent surveys report a large bias gap in how Americans believe police treat blacks. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 72 percent of Republicans are confident that police treat blacks and whites equally, compared to just 14 percent of Democrats. Meanwhile, a January poll by the Pew Research Center — fielded before the release of body cam footage of Nichols’ brutal beating — found that 70 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said police nationwide do at least “a good job” of racial and ethnic groups. to be treated equally, while only 18 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said the same. And a YouGov/The Economist poll after the footage was released found that Republicans (42 percent) were more likely than Democrats (23 percent) to say that Nichols Death is an isolated event.

There’s also a racial divide — both in how Americans perceive the problem and in what lawmakers want to do about it. A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll found that 75 percent all Voters said police violence against the public was a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem in the United States, with black voters (86 percent) more likely than white voters (73 percent) and Hispanic voters (76 percent) to feel this way. Meanwhile, fewer black adults (48 percent) than white adults (63 percent) say they favor increased funding for police departments to reduce civilian casualties in clashes with police, according to the YouGov/Economist poll.

This is not to say that Biden is dreaming. He is said to be on the same page as the Congressional Black Caucus on the kind of police reform they want to see, though they are tight-lipped on specifics. And more voters say police violence is a serious problem than two years ago, the biggest shift among white and Republican voters. Morning Consult/Politico found a 9-point jump among white respondents and a 15-point jump among Republicans who said police violence in the United States is a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem, compared to a May 2021 poll.

An ABC News/Washington Post survey also noted an overall decline in trust in the police since July 2020. At the time, 47 percent of Americans said they trusted the police to treat blacks and whites equally, and the same share said law enforcement was doing the right thing. Trained to avoid using excessive force. By February 2023, these numbers had dropped to 41 percent and 39 percent, respectively.

And there continues to be widespread support for certain types of reform. For example, according to YouGov/The Economist, nearly 60 percent of white, black, and Hispanic Americans supported banning the use of chokeholds. Similarly, these parties also favored the appointment of independent prosecutors to handle cases of police using deadly force, according to the same survey.

These are the numbers on their faces can This means there is more political momentum for a policing reform bill than a few years ago. But, as I’ve written before, gains in support for reform, especially among white Americans, have been fleeting. For example, between June 2020 and March 2021, trust in the Black Lives Matter movement fell by 10 percentage points, while trust in law enforcement growth by 13 percentage points. And just last year, Biden encouraged state and local governments to use federal funds to strengthen their police departments.

There’s reason to believe Biden’s enthusiasm could change this time around, too. During his speech Tuesday night, right after mentioning the injustice Nichols suffered at the hands of the police, he quickly followed up by saying that most police officers serve their communities honorably (a refrain he often uses when talking about race and racism. ).

The reasons for this change in tone are myriad, ranging from possible causes to a decline in protests and less media coverage of ongoing calls for police reform. Pressure on local lawmakers to make lasting changes can be short-lived, depending on the news cycle and current events. And, in general, public opinion ebbs and flows with tragedy, a trend we’ve reported with the debate over gun control. All of this is to say that despite Biden’s plea for change last night, action on police reform will be difficult.